Differently Abled Or Simply More Virtuous In One Respect

Earlier today, I made a post comparing the different routes which atheists and those with Asperger’s syndrome take to their naturalistic explanations of causes of events that more religiously inclined people tend to chalk up to supernatural agency.  Whereas religious people would attribute an illness or finding their true love to the purposeful forces, like God’s will or the work of witches or demons or angels, etc. both atheists and those with Asperger’s will simply give naturalistic causal explanations. 

The interesting difference that a study found was that those with Asperger’s did not even entertain that the question of “why did you get this illness?” or “why did you meet your true love how you did?” in terms of a supernatural agent behind the event, atheists explcitly rejected (meaning they at least considered it as a possibility) that there were supernatural guides to what happened.  The study concluded that whereas normal people are so hyperactively conscious of social interactions that they illicitly read them into non-social, merely natural events, those with Asperger’s syndrome, who are insufficiently socially perceptive are nonetheless spared of misplacing social inference and mistakenly seeing merely natural events as actually social ones. 

In other words, since those with Asperger’s syndrome under-perceive social relationships in the first place, they do not make the normal mistake of those normal people who not only properly perceive social dynamics but over-read them into even non-social realms, like that of natural causation and chance.  And, as it turned out, atheists generally do not, at least if this study was truth-conducive, have minds that merely don’t even entertain a supernatural cause’s possibility, but rather we generally have brains that are as inclined as any other “normal” people’s brains to anthropomorphize natural events and look for socially explicable causes for them as someone’s agency. 

The difference between the atheist and the theist is not that the atheist looks at natural causation as one with Asperger’s does but rather he or she looks at the world with the same natural propensitites towards social thinking and yet restrains that impulse rationally and applies more restricted categories of natural explanations.  Put simply, the atheist is as prone to overly social, anthropomorphic thinking as theists but avoids it on purpose and employs his or her reason against his or her cognitive biases instead. 

I took this as a point that only bolsters the view that atheism stems from an ethically and epistemologically praiseworthy intellectual virtue that deliberately opts to accept rationally more rigorous, constrained, logical, and empirical inferences over the naturally tempting but also faulty anthropomorphic mental tendencies that all humans have.  I also took this as encouraging for the case that atheists can and should persuade theists to exercise the same sorts of ethical and epistemological standards to reject supernaturalistic beliefs against the case one often hears that atheists should just accept that religious people are inevitably that way, even genetically determined to be that way, because it’s simply how their brains work and they cannot be reasoned out of it. 

I think religious belief or lack thereof is an ethical matter and one on which we can challenge theists to change their minds about on rationally and ethically persuasive grounds  by appeals to properly conceived epistemological standards for correct thinking and properly conceived ethical standards for correct choosing.  Proving that atheists do not simply lack the overactively social sorts of brains that theists have but have them too would help demonstrate that the atheist  is in the same natural condition as the theist and yet chooses to properly separate the spheres of natural causation from those of social causation. 

This would prove that the theist tendency to socially understand the natural realm is not an insurmountable, and therefore not blameworthy, mental tendency.  It is a mental tendency that can be resisted, as evidenced by the atheist.  If the only people who could avoid socializing the natural realm were people with Asperger’s, then while the theists might still be rationally wrong to do so, they could not be blamed or expected to change given their mental condition.  But if this study is right and atheists are living proof that people with a natural tendency to read even the natural realm as social can deliberately think against and minimize this mistake through more careful, rationally cautious and rigorous efforts of mind and will, then theists can also be called upon to work against their own naturally supernaturalistic and superstitious cognitive biases. 

I just took the time here to spell out the arguments clearly again since they seem to be misunderstood by quite a few people before going on to make another couple of points that also seem misunderstood and which I did not adequately address earlier.  The challenge has come up from several people to me and on Scientific America in the comments section that even raising the question of how atheists may or may not be like those with Asperger’s syndrome is somehow either offensive or an attempt to marginalize the atheist viewpoint as a symptom of a developmental disorder and, therefore, an illness or incorrect way of thinking. 

1.  Whether or not it is offensive to atheists, the question of whether atheism has a particular form of brain-based basis is a legitimate psychological question.  Regardless of how it is answered, people could use the conclusion to help or harm atheists.  Some might cheer to learn that they were simply born atheists and cite it as further proof there is no God who could hold them accountable for disbelief since they were born that way.  Some might take it as bolstering the case for atheists’ rights to be irreligious since it would be an immutable trait.  Some might feel more compassionate for their theist friends, and vice versa, if they believed that disagreements were all along reflections of just different brains and no ethical failures or rational laziness or emotional/spiritual  crudity after all. 

In other words, if the unlikely were proven true and people were just “born” atheists or “born” theists by virtue of brains that just conditioned them that way, that would not by any means directly entail that either condition were an “illness”.  The judgment of “illness” would arise if it could be shown that one view was false and the other true and that the inability to see the falsehood or the truth would be in this way a “debilitation” or “disability” or “cognitive defect”. 

So, if there is a God and were atheists and only atheists cognitively incapable of perceiving this, then yes, we would have a specific cognitive deficiency compared to theists.  But on the other hand, if there is no God and were atheists the only ones capable of realizing this cognitively, then the religious would be terminally delusional and the ones with the cognitive deficienty compared to atheists.  But of itself proving that only atheists and those with Asperger’s syndrome did not believe in God or other supernatural agents would not answer the question of which side (the atheists/Asperger’s or the theists) had the cognitive deficiency and the delusion.

So in raising the hypothesis that atheists might have similar minds to those with Asperger’s, the suggestion is not that the atheists might be therefore developementlally disabled but, rather, that they would be differently abled.  And, I would argue, in this case, better abled.  If the study under consideration is correct, people with Asperger’s are better at avoiding fallacious inferences that erroneously mix in social causation inferences in natural causation realms.  

Just because they have cognitive tendencies that make social interactions harder to understand and engage in, does not mean that their judgment in non-social circumstances must inherently be inferior to “normal” people in whatever respects they differ from each other. That’s like saying the fictional autistic savant Rain Man’s adding skills must be worse than a non-autistic savant’s just because Rain Man has trouble making eye contact.  They’re different skills connected to different brain functions.

And similarly, if you ask an Asperger’s “sufferer” about the cause of an illness he has, say, leukemia, and he gives an explanation in terms of physiological causes and then you ask a “normal” person about the cause of leukemia and he says “God’s will”, the “normal” person is not right just because he doesn’t have Asperger’s. In fact, the study shows that the person with Asperger’s has a  more trustworthy, more reliable mind since it does not mistakenly impose social categories are natural processes.

So, had the study come out differently and not said that atheists differend from people with Asperger’s but instead said that they thought the same way and that atheists were also incapable of naturally thinking in supernatural or superstitious terms, then atheists would be innately rationally superior to theists (assuming that it is rationally correct to not use social categories for grasping natural events).  That is what this would prove.  Or it would prove that atheists and theists just differed in a way that made it impossible to adjudicate between them (since one just sees social categories as applicable to the natural realm and another just sees them as inapplicable) and someone might argue that we would then be incapable of choosing between the two default assumptions.  (Though I would disagree, since I think they are testable and evidence can be adduced as to which is the better theory.)  

But in neither case would the fact of Asperger’s “sufferers’” difficulties with social perception and interaction have any bearing on whether the Asperger’s related tendency to not think of supernatural causes for natural events was a better or worse way to see things. And if atheists had the complete inability to see social causes behind natural events that Asperger’s syndrome “sufferers” have but also none of the Asperger’s syndrome “sufferers’” struggles to understand social interactions generally, then atheists would not be in any way disabled at all. They would just lack the normal cognitive biases suffered by normal people and not lack any of the social perception skills of those who suffer from Asperger’s, which would sound ideal to me.

It would mean atheists had the best brains possible—ones that properly and automatically both understood and segregated the separate realms of natural causation and of social meaning/causation.  The only loss to atheists would be that we would lose the moral high ground of pointing out that we exercise our wills in a more ethically defensible way when we choose to believe only in ways which are consistent with rational explanations.  We would have less agency involved if we were all like those with Asperger’s and just incapable of thinking otherwise.  The fact that atheists are theoretically capable of the same cognitive errors as theists and yet we train ourselves against them (at least on these questions—it is quite likely that atheists are just as prone as theists to cognitive biases in any number of other questions and theists are just as capable as atheists of avoiding cognitive biases in any number of other questions) gives us cause to claim ethical credit.  

In sum though, asking whether atheists are like Asperger’s syndrome “sufferers” in this one cognitive capacity is not an intrinsically negative thing.  It does not reinforce a hostile prejudice from the outset.  If on the other hand they were asking if atheists were inherently anti-social or socially imperceptive and so in that way worth comparing to sociopaths on the one hand or those with Asperger’s on the other, that might more closely reflect a prejudicial starting point against us.  But even then, I would welcome the empirical tests to vindicate us against slanders we are inherently either immoral or amoral or “spiritually deficient”, etc. 

Your Thoughts?

  • andrea

    Heh; interesting article you are citing.

    I’ve read a number of research studies about Aspergers/Autism. Rarely do I fail to be amazed at the incredibly small N, and the subsequent analyses generated from the results. Unfortunately, there seems to be a number of them where all sorts of massive generalities are claimed from a single study involving just a few subjects.

    This one actually managed to use more than a couple dozen subjects. But, (despite the acknowledgements of the individual variations in responses) there is still this reporting that presents the Asperger’s subjects as though they are uniform. That of course is Absolute Nonsense.

    Likewise, in your essay (which I did enjoy reading), you have also treated religious, atheist, and Asperger’s people as being broadly similar in cognitive makeup. Understandably, this is for the purposes of argument; we all recognize that there is an incredible amount of human variation.

    But one thing I would like to point out is that there are some rather religious Asperger’s people out there. I’m certainly not one of them (!) but I have met a few, and read things written by others.

    There were two whom I had gotten to know. They were the sort of folks who got really dogmatic (talk about black & white thinking!) and stuck on religion. From what I could tell, it was because the teachings of their [respective] churches provided: (A) a means of making sense of how people should act; (B) why things happen; and (C) what their place was in the world. I don’t recall which sort of religiosity was involved, beyond general conservative Christianity, and I’m not about to generalize with a sample N = 2!

    But not unlike the links that can occur between intelligence and conservative religiosity, the process can be a self-limiting thing. Some kinds of cognitive issues can create difficulty with novelty and broadening previous paradigms, which then result in lack of flexibility and a discomfort with further situations that are challenging. A more simplistic, binary world-view does not require flexibility, so such people have a lesser willingness to move out of their comfort zones. (Note that an Asperger’s diagnosis has never required more than average intelligence – that means low-average up through genius is included. One of these people was average, the other kinda bright.)

    Now, all of this is a lot of verbiage to point out that, “Hey, being Asperger’s doesn’t automatically mean being atheist as well!” (Which no one is insisting upon.)

    BUT it is a good thing to be mindful of when pondering such issues, and making claims about who has the “best brains”.

    In answer to your question, of course being atheist does not necessarily make one “inherently either immoral or amoral or ‘spiritually deficient’”. BUT I would not say that it must perforce make atheists more moral. Rather, an atheist who has reasoned out, or who follows previously-presented ethical behavior, is a moral person.

    I find the whole “Us vs Them superiority” thing to be obnoxious and unworthy of decent people. Sure, it’s entertaining to jeer at the foibles of the (seemingly infinite) supply of fools. It is also imperative to protest and work against the horrible people out there. But the focus must be on values and behavior — we are all human beings.

    Andrea
    Recent post on atheism: Reasoning for a good cause

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Andrea. Those are all great points to take seriously and either qualify or soften the points I was interested in.